Land and Cities

What is the secret life of land title registration? The Torrens system of land title registration, developed in South Australia in 1858, is fast becoming the most popular system of land conveyancing and administration around the world.

Sarah Keenan discusses the Torrens system of title registration that was invented for South Australia to assist the project of colonial settlement and land speculation. It was designed to increase efficiency of conveyancing, but title registration fundamentally changes the nature of title to land. The defining principles of Torrens title registration are ‘the mirror, the curtain, and indemnity’. These principles work together to hide the land’s unregistered history, making that history disappear from legal view. However the people who have those histories still exist. The Torrens system of title registration, or versions of it, are today favoured by the World Trade Organisation and World Bank, and are increasingly being adopted around the world in an effort to make land a liquid asset. New forms of title registration are being innovated to assist financial markets in land, for example the Mortgage Electronic Registration System in the US, which played a key role in facilitating the subprime crisis.

Whereas title to land in the common law world was previously conveyed using paper deeds that proved the owner had a history of possessing the land, under the Torrens system title is conveyed through the centralised, singular and increasingly electronic process of registration. The system was designed to make conveying land faster and more efficient, but it also changed the legal concept of land title, making it a discrete, dephysicalised object. Registered title is thus out of sync with land, which has a physicality and history that cannot be wiped away. This lack of synchronisation between land and title has a number of troubling effects.     

Dr Sarah Keenan is Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London. Sarah is a legal geographer with research interests in critical race and feminist engagements with property.

Read more about Sarah’s work in: her book ‘Subversive Property: Law and the Production of Spaces of Belonging’ ; in Smoke, Curtains and Mirrors: The Production of Race Through Time and Title Registration ; and in ‘From Historical Chains to Derivative Futures: Land Title Registries as Time Machines’.

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